Way back before FaceBook Marketplace and Google, the classified section of the local newspaper was the place to find used cars, boats, toasters and even second-hand lovers. It was in that section, 30-odd years ago, that I found what would become my first and only flats skiff.
The entry was succinct: “1994 Dolphin Super Skiff. Merc 60 outboard. Like New. Call….” The sparse description intrigued me more than a world of poetic words ever could have. “Like new” beats the pants off piña coladas and getting caught in the rain every time.
The dude who placed the ad was named Adam. We hit it off during the transaction, and resolved to fish together once the deal was done. We’ve been buddies ever since.
Adam taught me how to run the waters of the Everglades National Park. We were both in our twenties at the time and keen on adventure, and a bona fide wilderness offered the perfect challenge. Adam had been given navigational pointers by a seasoned commercial fisherman, and this proved essential in an era before accurate weather reports, GPS systems and whatnot.
But, truth be told, we were young rip-asses who learned routes by pointing the bow south, hitting the throttle and bouncing off stuff. This led to unplanned outcomes, including overnight stays, busted skegs, and harrowing moments with, among other things, gators and lightning storms. It also earned us the keys to an angling paradise.
On one particular trip we were targeting “black snook.” These fish do not follow the usual migrations of their species, lingering deep in the backcountry where tannins in the water dye their scales dark. Black snook are considered—among the modest cult of backcountry Everglades anglers, anyway—to be masters at using cover to their advantage. They are, or so it seems, tougher and more ornery than your average snook. And all anglers love tough and ornery fish.
The morning airvwas brisk, a welcome reprieve after months of unrelenting heat. We ran south down the coast for an hour or so and then chased a moving tide back into a clear creek high with run-off from recent rains. I remember the slow, languid arc of looping fly line, plugs bobbing and weaving in the shallows, and fish materializing in clouds of silt and shell.
At one point we glided over a large alligator flush on the dark bottom, its eyes glinting like new pennies. Belt-necked kingfishers flitted from branch to branch, and the mangrove trees dampened a steady breeze and muted all noise. At our feet, the surface was slick and glossy, the sky above an unbroken blue. It was all vaguely eternal.
We began casting into a narrow section lined with roots and fallen trees. Placing our offerings accurately required finesse and a measure of luck, and snags were just part of the process. But we persevered and caught several fish, playing them carefully back to the skiff.
In the middle of a lazy retrieve, a dull thud registered on the end of my line. I snapped the rod tip back, expecting a frantic run or tell-tale headshake. But what I felt was a ponderous, immovable weight. In my mind’s eye I saw the big gator we’d floated over, a tattered lure fluttering between its yellow teeth. The light-tackle rod felt wispy in my hands. Foot after foot of pinging line surged off the reel. I tightened the drag a few clicks to no effect.
Angling literature is replete with stories of battles lost, and in most the victim catches only a glimpse of The Fish That Will Haunt Them The Rest Of Their Days. I see that now as a form of mercy.
We saw this monster plain as day. The water parted mid-creek and the glistening head of an impossibly large snook emerged. Now, Adam and I were accustomed to big snook. We’d caught more than our share, and neither of us was prone to panic. But this creature’s dimensions were appalling.
The fish was so heavy that it could not clear the water. It wallowed on the surface, great head shaking back and forth in defiance, then hung in limbo for a long moment before slipping out of sight. The reel began to whine again as the big fish surged for the safety of the trees.
The encounter was surreal. At its highest point, we could see the dark olive sides, the flared gills, the large black eye, and the gaping, under-slung jaw. This was the Big Kahuna. The Slob of Slobs. The fabled Snookapotamus. Adam made a gargling noise and fumbled with the trolling motor.
I could detail the moments that followed, but the contest that played out in that little creek was profound, and it would be a pity to diminish it with a sub-par retelling. In short, the big fish did not just “get away.” It battered my soul and made off with my lunch money and my mojo.
Author Norman MacLean once wrote: “No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone…I shall remember that son-of-a-bitch forever.”
The dude had a way with words.
I stood on the foredeck that morning, forlorn and defeated. I knew in my heart of hearts that I would never again see — much less hook — a snook of such comical dimensions.
But the black-hearted moment soon passed, replaced by gratitude for wild places, a natural world that gives no quarter, and pals who understand the wisdom of long silences.
So I resumed casting with great hope that morning, and I have cast with great hope ever since. In fact, when I’m back on open bays or in sun-dappled creeks, each thump at the end of my line makes this weathered heart knock out a brisk rhythm that is otherwise tough to muster.
If there’s more you can ask of a fish, I’m not sure what it would be.